“Girls your age? Y’all don’t know how to act!”
My favorite office mailman “Ted” and I had stumbled onto the topic of relationships during one of our daily freewheeling conversations that cover everything from how to invest money to race relations in America. My penchant for thoughtful questions and answers has inspired him to call me "an old soul" more than once, but in this instance he emphasized that our two-decade-plus age difference meant that he would always knew more than I did.
“You don’t cook. You can barely boil water. You don’t clean. You don’t know how to treat a man! You have a boyfriend, right? You have to learn to do these things,” Ted continued.
He boasted that his current girlfriend, who is closer to his age, makes sure his clothes are ironed every morning and ensures that his home is neat upon his arrival. When I asked if he also cleans and cooks for her, Ted insinuated that men who perform these duties are gay.
I was shocked, countering that Ted's girlfriend wasn't doing those things for him because she is supposed to as a woman, but because she cares about him. I tried to persuade him to do the same for her.
Of course, Ted balked. But then a surprising thing happened.
In my attempt to halt Ted’s diatribe and convince him of the beauty of balanced relationships freed of gender stereotypes, I felt a twinge of guilt. Because it actually made me reflect on the imbalance in my own relationship.
My boyfriend pulls most of the weight in the very areas (cooking and cleaning) that Ted was ranting about. I made a mental vow to improve in those neglected areas –- not because possessing a vagina relegates me to these duties, but to bring equality back to our partnership.
The epicenter of my unfair relationship dynamic lies in the kitchen. I accidentally pulled a bait-and-switch. In the beginning we tried to alternate the days each of us cooked, but I was so eager to take over in the kitchen to show him how much I cared, that I'd begun an impossible-to-keep-up precedent.
He's fond of reminding me of the afternoon I woke him up from a nap by holding a plate of spaghetti carbonara, piled high with fist-sized meatballs, under his nose. I take the mist that veils his eyes every time he tells that story as proof that he'll always love me because of that dish.
Now we’re approaching our third year together and I've gotta admit that I got comfortable and lazy. Lately, the majority of my culinary contributions involve me unsuccessfully goading him to blow his budget when I accompany him on jaunts to Trader Joe’s. Whenever our stomachs start to growl, the conversation usually goes a little something like this:
Me: “I’m hungry! What should we eat today?”
Boyfriend: “I dunno, maybe chicken, vegetables, and rice?”
Me: “Sounds pretty good. So…yeah…ummm…”
Boyfriend: [Rolls eyes and heads to the kitchen]
Me: [Watches him cooking dinner from the couch]
The last month marked the first day of my personal reformation as I studied multiple recipes and stormed through Trader Joe’s, picking up all of the ingredients I needed for the homemade hamburgers I promised to make. His initial reaction was a sarcastic “WOW YOU WANT TO COOK FOR ME??!?!?!?”, but the rate at which he devoured the burgers was a sure sign that I was off to a good start.
I'm ashamed to admit that another problem I have involves messiness. From the moment I performed my first chore as a preschooler –- organizing the shoes in my closet -– I have known how to keep a house clean. And my boyfriend sees me fastidiously cleaning up my bathroom or washing dishes whenever he visits my apartment.
But when I visit him, for reasons unbeknownst to me, my cleanliness falls by the wayside. I don't give his space the same respect that he grants mine. When he's in my home he is always neat, making sure to keep his clothes in his duffel bag, only removing things when he needs them. But when I stay over at his place, it looks like a bomb has hit my suitcase. Clothes and shoes spill out from the sides and the clothing that I have already worn often sits in a jumbled pile in a corner.
He either patiently reminds me to tidy up my luggage or just leaves me to my own devices, but I know it bothers him. I still feel a child-like shame whenever I reflect on the time a few months ago when he sternly asked, “Janday, can you please put away your food? Just have a little more respect for my place. That’s all I ask.” I'd left a box of half-eaten takeout on the kitchen counter for the gajillionth time.
How hard could it have been for me to move it a mere 2 inches to put it in the microwave or the refrigerator?
This behavior is not cute. Now whenever I visit, I neatly fold my clothes, organize all my girl stuff more carefully in his bathroom (another MAJOR gripe), and put things away when they are out of place. I know he would do the same for me.
My conversation with Ted, chiding him for all the chores he expects his girlfriend to do, reminded me of just how much my own boyfriend does and how much I wasn't doing. Because if I really believe that relationships must be balanced, with both partners using their words and actions to treat each other equally, I need to reciprocate the duties that my boyfriend never complains about doing for me.
I've got to thank Ted for all this.